Sermon: December 30, 2018 – “The Flip Side”

The Flip Side

Texts: Matthew 10:39, 20:16; Philippians 1: 3-6

Matthew 10:39; Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Matthew 20: 16; So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

Philippians 1: 3-6; I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.

There are several themes in the New Testament that become obvious over time as you read the sayings and the teachings of Jesus.  One of those themes is Jesus always seem to support preferential treatment for the poor or the sick, he speaks frequently of a life of love and a life of service devoted to others, he gives us examples of tolerance and a non-judgmental lifestyle.  But one theme of the several is Jesus always had a knack for turning things around, causing us to look at things in a new way, taking an event or a teaching moment and literally turning it upside down to create a better understanding.  Jesus loved to do this, it seems to me.  Whether it was the woman at the well or the group of legal eagles that wanted to stone the adulteress, Jesus had a way a finding the unexpected answer, telling the group that the person without sin could cast the first stone.  Jesus had a way of always finding what I call the “flip side”; or another way of viewing a situation.

This is evidenced in the first two passages of scripture I just read from Matthew.  In one passage Jesus speaks of losing your life but in reality finding your life when you lose it – and the other scripture is similar; the idea of the first shall be last and the last shall be first.  I wondered secretly to myself how that would work in a setting like the Olympic Trials or some other athletic contest, – but somehow I don’t think that is what Jesus had in mind.

As you begin to ponder these passages and a multitude of others just like it, it starts to become clear that Jesus made a habit of always looking for that flip side.  Whatever the situation, whatever the circumstance, usually there was a flip side that could be considered.  Jesus always considered the flip side, and I think we should as well.  We should take the examples given us by Jesus and put them into practice in the here and now.  What situations do you find yourself in that could benefit from a look at the flip side?  Chances are, there are many situations and many options to consider.

There is a great metaphor that represents this approach to life, a way of receiving life as it comes and making the most of every moment; it is a metaphor that I have not been able to find in the Bible.  Jesus didn’t say it, although if the situation had presented itself, I’m confident he would have.

The metaphor of which I speak is creatively portrayed in the first Harry Potter movie.  I want to show you a brief movie clip and after you watch, see if we can make the connections to this metaphor.

Play Movie

Did anyone make the connection?  Did you see what happened in the movie?  That’s right!  The wall became a gate.  Consider that metaphor for a moment…..the wall becomes a gate.  Doesn’t that sound a little like Jesus?  Can’t you see Jesus teaching a crowd of people and he is explaining that those who follow the way of love and follow the ways of the divine, that for them, when they encounter a wall, it will become a gate?  I think this could be the most powerful metaphor of them all for us to consider.

About 25 years ago I hit that wall.  I was in a job that I hated.  We were struggling to pay the bills.  Relationships were tense, the kids weren’t happy and we weren’t happy and everybody just seemed to be on edge.  Everything it seemed was a dead end.  There was no where to go, nothing to do, no future to believe in; just get up every morning and slog through another distasteful day at work only to return home and face the same thing again tomorrow.  It was quite a wall.

But that wall became a gate.  One day in the midst of that experience, while I was surveying the enormity of that wall, my sister called.  This is the sister who is an ordained elder in the UMC and has recently retired.  She had spoken to me before about entering the ministry, but I had never been interested, never really considered it to be an option for me.  But that day, up against that wall, suddenly what she was saying began to make sense; for me, the wall became a gate to the ministry.  I entered seminary that fall and began to pursue a new direction and walked through a new gate.

This happens to us all the time, if we can create an awareness of it.  Every time we encounter something that we perceive as not going quite right, chances are there is a gate in there somewhere.  There is an opportunity for us to move forward in a new direction, a new learning opportunity, a new experience, a new way of looking at life comes to us with every wall we encounter.

All of us hit walls in our lives.  Some walls are bigger than others.  But every wall we encounter is also a gate.  Every wall holds the potential to teach, to expand our thinking, to lead us to new ideas and give us the opportunity of a new experience or a new direction.  There are few people in this world that encounter all walls in life with joy.  And yet that is what we are called to do.  When we can experience every aspect of our life with joy, when we can view the walls as gates, then life becomes exciting and meaningful and full of joy.  Every wall can become a gate!  Consider the possibilities!

What are you up against right now?  Can you see the gate or can you only see the wall?  Do you have the faith to take a couple of steps back and run at the wall like our characters did in the movie?  Will you allow yourself to experience the transformation that takes place when a wall becomes the gate?

This has also happened to us on several occasions as a church.  We sometimes come up against a wall. A couple of years ago our music program hit a wall, but eventually Kris Haynal and her husband Mark showed up and the wall became a gate.  A couple of months ago I made a rather agonizing decision to pursue a new ministry opportunity with Habitat for Humanity.  For many of you, that announcement felt a lot like another wall. But through the process that wall has become another gate for this congregation to walk through with the capable leadership of my friend and colleague, Cody Stauffer.  If we can learn to not panic when we hit a wall and try to find ways to consider the wall as a gate, then we can really begin to follow the example of Jesus and find that “flip side”.

As we begin to put this transition that looms in front of us into practice, let me take just a moment and speak to the third scripture I read a few minutes ago from Philippians.  Here in a letter to the church in Philippi, the apostle Paul tells the church there he has fond memories of their time together. But just because Paul himself is no longer there with the congregation, he also assures them that the work that has begun under his leadership will continue.  Read the text again and try to place it in our context as well.

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.

Even if it feels like a wall today, there is a gate in your future.

As you learn to experience walls as gates, life becomes fuller.  Life becomes more meaningful.  You will never again be disappointed, never again be angry, and never again feel like you are out of options.  Because the wall you are running into is really a gate.  When you can see that, your life will change and you will never view obstacles the same way again.

The first shall be last and the last shall be first.  Those who find their lives will lose them and those who lose them will find life.  And the walls you encounter will become gates.  Change how you look at a wall and the wall you are looking at will change.  Go in peace and go with God and go through that wall as it becomes a gate.

And that is the final food for thought from me.


Sermon: December 9, 2018 – “Navigating the Divine Way”

Navigating the Divine Way

Text: John 14: 6

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Several years ago Heidi and I traveled to New England in the fall to experience that part of the country during the fall color season. It was a photographers dream and I still remember our time there like it was just last month.

After we arrived at the airport in Boston we had to rent a car.  We took a shuttle bus to the rental agency and proceeded to wait in line for our turn to pick up our car.  When I got to the desk, the attendant there went through all the usual things, and then asked me if we would like a car with a navigation system in it.  It cost extra, so I declined, but then she told me that was all they had left, and I was going to get one anyway – at no charge.

It took us a few miles of playing with the system to really begin to see how it worked, but after a day or two, we became quite adept at programming it and listening for the voice that would tell us where to turn or what exit to take.  It was a female voice, so we named the system Rhoda.  It was loads of fun and I was very impressed with how the GPS system could locate us, even in some fairly remote areas – it always knew where we were. Of course this was several years ago, before GPS systems were on every smart phone and as common as a cup of coffee.

One of the more interesting features of this particular system, is when you were programming a destination, it often gave you a choice of routes.  There were options you could select based on time, scenery, highway driving and so on.  The system would then create a route to your destination based on the preferences you had selected.  It was very cool. Google maps still does this and gives you a choice of several different routes to a destination.

As we enter into the second week of Advent, the focus of our attention turns toward the symbolism of the Second Advent candle. There are a number of different traditions surrounding the symbolism of the Advent candles, but one of the traditions identifies the second Advent candle as Christ the Way.  As I began to think about Christ the Way, and pondered the scripture I read a few minutes ago, I remembered our experience with the GPS navigation system.  I remembered that we always were given options.

As I thought more about this, I could recall an incident when someone stopped their car to ask a group of people I happened to be with if the knew the way to a particular restaurant in the area.  Of course, we all knew the way; but when we began to answer, one person’s description on how to get there varied considerably from another person’s description.  It was chaos for a few minutes because everyone in the group had their own idea as to how to get to the restaurant.  Soon a discussion of the best way erupted among the group and the poor bewildered driver who needed directions was totally confused.  Finally, we got the driver the directions he needed, but it was evident there was more than one way to get to the restaurant.

Within the Christian faith tradition, I believe we have a problem.  We have a problem with exclusivity and superiority.  The scripture that I read a few minutes ago seems to indicate there is only one way to a divine relationship.  And Jesus is quoted as saying he is that way.  I believe it is important for us to truly comprehend what is being said here and how we can receive the message.

In the Buddhist faith tradition, there are passages in the sacred text of that tradition that speak of a finger pointing to the moon.  There are warnings also, that one is not to become pre-occupied with the finger, rather the focus should be on the moon. The Buddha himself considered his position in life to be one of the finger pointing to the moon, but not the moon itself.

The same is true of the person of Jesus, I believe.  With his birth and life and eventual execution, Jesus pointed us in the way we should go.  Too often that way is described as narrow and very, very specific.  I don’t believe that was the intent of Jesus, nor do I believe that is the intent of this scripture.

In order for us to experience the Divine fully, it often requires someone else to show us the way.  Sometimes it is an event or an occasion that shows us the way.  It can be the birth of a child or a tragedy or crisis in our life – many things can show us the way.

I believe what Jesus intended in this scripture was the fact that he was pointing the way – and everyone needs to be pointed in the right direction.  Everyone needs to be helped along the way.  That help for many is the person of Jesus, for others it is a finger pointing to the moon.

As experience in real life has proven, there is always more than one way.  Whether it is a GPS system, your smart phone, Google maps or a group of people trying to give directions, there is always more than one way.  As we celebrate Christ the Way this Advent season, let us ponder all the ways that Jesus leads us into relationship with the Divine.  Let’s focus on the coming of the person of Jesus into this world and the many ways he represents.

Go in peace, go with God and go your own way.  Amen.

Sermon: December 2, 2018 -“The Birth of Hope”

The Birth of Hope

Text: Hebrews 6: 18b-19a

“We who have taken refuge might be strongly encouraged to seize the hope set before us.  We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul…..”

There was a basketball coach who found himself coaching his high school basketball team in the state finals.  It was half-time of the state championship, a game of a lifetime, but the coach’s team had been outplayed in the first half.  They were behind by almost 20 points and the coach struggled with what to say to his players during the brief half-time intermission.  He gathered his team together and began to speak;

“Each and every one of you had hoped to win this game.  That hope is now diminished, and may in fact be completely gone.  If you reduce everything to winning and losing, more often than not, you will be disappointed in life.  It may not seem like it right now, but this basketball game is a very small part of your life; but it is a part of your life you will carry with you forever.  I want you to change your thinking about this game.  It doesn’t matter who wins or who loses – that is just the score.  What matters is whether or not you have made a contribution.  In this second half, I’m going to do something unusual; I’m going to play everybody – not just the best players, but everybody, because at the end of the night I want everybody to know that he made a contribution.  Don’t pay any attention to the score, we probably will not win the game, but that doesn’t matter.  I want you to be able to hold on to the idea for the rest of your lives that you made a contribution in the state finals.  A contribution may be a good pass, it may mean making a free throw, it may mean setting a good screen, it may mean getting a rebound, and it may mean scoring a few points.  Just go out this second half and have fun and think about making a contribution, and don’t think about winning or losing.”

As you might guess, the team listened and responded.  Pretty soon they were playing together as a team in the second half.  Each player focused on making a contribution; slowly the deficit began to be made up as the players passed the ball more, set screens for each other and shared the basketball.  True to his word, the coach played every player that night; the entire bench made a contribution.  And the team returned to their hometown as state champions.

The coach managed to shift the hope of his players from something intangible to something tangible.  He moved the hope from something that seemed impossible, like winning the game, to something possible, like making a good pass.  As he gave his team new hope, they could see the single step ahead of them and took that one, and then took another and another and another, until finally they worked themselves back into the game and eventually won the state title.

The coach’s words are important for us to hear today as well.  I believe it is very common for many of us to view the Holidays with a competitive spirit.  We have all these things we need to accomplish, this long list of chores, gifts to buy, cards to send, parties to attend, etc, etc, etc.  It can be overwhelming; and before we know it, we are behind.  Way behind; we will never catch up and we will never win.

Let me ask you to think about this Holiday season in terms of just making a contribution.  It might be just one Christmas card that will brighten someone’s day, it may be just one present for that someone under the tree, it might just be a phone call.  If you can make a contribution this Holiday season, then the season will have been a success.  You will never get everything done, so why stress and fret about it?  Hope to make a contribution and look and watch for those opportunities, and as you do, much will be accomplished.

You don’t have to win the Holiday game.  And it is a game, I hope you realize.  You don’t have to score more points than your neighbor; you don’t have to be the champion of your block.  All you need to do this Holiday season is make a contribution.  Find a way to give someone else a lift; find a way to give someone else some hope.  If you can do that, and I think each and every one of us can; then the Holiday season will be a winner for us.

What is left undone is undone.  What we didn’t get to is inconsequential as long as we took the opportunity to make a contribution.  That is our hope this Christmas season, to make a contribution.  It is a hope we can see, it is a hope we can accomplish, and it is the hope that has been set before us and it is the hope of the Christ Child.  Don’t worry about winning the game this season, just make a contribution and change someone’s life.

If we can do that, it will in fact be the birth of hope.  Amen.